The cherry blossoms are blooming

I just remembered that it was exactly a year ago today when my husband and I finally got to go to Japan. The trip was amazing and it sealed our fascination for everything Japanese. Japan was more beautiful than I imagined especially with those fluffy, pink clouds of cherry blossoms in parks, gardens, temples, street corners, riversides, and bridges.

A cherry blossom tree just outside a house along the Philosopher's Path in Kyoto

Many people stroll (and shoot) along the Philosopher's Path, a beautiful walkway lined with blooming cherry blossom trees during spring

Cherry blossom trees getting all lit up in the evening in a street in Gion

A weeping cherry tree in Maruyama Park

Cherry trees line both sides of the Sumida River in Tokyo

Yoyogi Park in Tokyo

Japanese and foreign tourists descend upon Ueno Park in Tokyo from late March to early April

Appreciating the blossoms’ delicate beauty and short life span, the Japanese take the time to celebrate its arrival with viewing parties (hanami). The flower also figures in Japanese poetry and literature, seen as a metaphor for life–it’s beautiful, it’s fleeting, it has to be celebrated, and it ends. Sometimes all too soon.

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The Cheapskate’s Guide to Tokyo (or at least how I did it)

A couple of weeks ago, I got messages from friends who are planning to go to Japan to catch the cherry blossoms in bloom next year. One of their concerns (as it was mine) was keeping the expenses down. I wrote about seeing Kyoto on a budget for in-flight magazine, Smile, last July, and I thought it would be good idea to list down some ideas to keep costs down in Tokyo while still seeing a lot of what that huge metropolitan city has to offer. So here’s another entry, my gift to my Japan-bound friends–minus my long Japan travel tales of Days 1 to 10. 🙂

Explore the streets. No better way to witness the pulse of the Japanese capital than walk its busy (as well as its quiet) streets where you can be among the ultra-fashionable, the throngs of salarymen, or fellow tourists in awe of Tokyo. To minimize transportation costs, it’s best to explore the city per area. The extensive metro rail of the city has stops for most of the popular spots in Tokyo, anyway. And bring your most comfortable shoes!  (There were days though when I did succumb to “vanity over comfort” mentality with a pair of boots that just looked nicer. Tsk, tsk.)

Heading down Takeshita-dori. Hello, crowd.

1. Harajuku. Head down Takeshita Dori, which is just across the JR Yamanote line exit of Harajuku Station. Walk down this narrow street lined with trendy boutiques, shops where cosplayers likely shop, a 100 yen store, some restaurants and a lot of crepe stalls. Check it our during a Sunday to see Japanese teens get all dressed up. Walk further south and you’ll end up in Omotesando, where the crowd is past their adolescence and has a different kind of style–less costumey, more chic.

Akihabara in the afternoon. An even better sight in the evening!

2. Akihabara. Tokyo’s Electric Town and ground zero for geekery with all the manga and toy stores, gadgets galore, and maid cafes to gawk at. You can get out of the JR Akihabara exit and start checking out the stores from there. (Here is the very detailed Akihabara map we were given on our walking tour. Here is another one from Tokyo Tourism that might be helpful. They have 53 Ways to Explore Tokyo on Foot; most tourist spots are in areas A, B, C, and D.)

Pedestrians waiting for the green light at the Shibuya Crossing

3. Shibuya. Where you can find the tourist-draw of a crossing, that little Hachiko statue, sharply dressed young Japanese women (makes you feel you want to go back to your inn and put on something nicer) and so many department stores for a consumerist high.

An alley in the Golden Gai in Shinjuku–one of the most interesting night spots in Tokyo

4. Shinjuku. Where skyscrapers, more department stores, and night spots, including a red-light district, abound. Must check out the alleys and pubs of the Golden Gai, though a visit in one of the bars will set you back a cover charge or admission fee between Y700 to Y2000. (FYI: To fellow Pinoys, there is a bar nearby called Champion Bar and it is co-owned by a Filipino and frequented by Pinoys working in Tokyo. Our friend pointed it out to us, but we didn’t get a chance to go inside.) You can also just head to one of the big chain stores, like Takashimaya (with a large Tokyu Hands branch inside), Isetan (must stop for the basement food hall), or Yodobashi to drool over electronics.

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Tokyo, Day 9: The day we didn’t go to Ghibli Museum

On the ninth day, we had originally planned to head over to the Ghibli Museum. We knew you have to book months ahead if you plan to go during the peak tourist season, which was when we were going. Purchase of the tickets can only be done at certain travel agencies in certain countries—the Philippines not included. This meant we had to ask someone in Japan to buy our tickets in a Lawson’s convenience store. So we did. Two months before we arrived. But by the time our friend headed over to Lawson’s to get the tickets, the only ones available were for sometime in May. My Studio Ghibli dreams were crushed. (But check out this one blogger who got to go.) Oh, but there remained a silver lining. We were still in Japan and it was a free day without anything planned. (Pardon the low-res photos, my net connection sucks so these are easier to upload.)

Bandai mothership calling

P had originally wanted to see the life-sized Gundam statue that was erected in Odaiba a year before. But it had been moved out of Tokyo and into Shizuoka. So when he spotted the Bandai logo on top of a building as we were about to cross the blue bridge over Sumida River, it was like the mother ship calling out to him. I have friends who’ve gone to Paris and who headed to the Eiffel Tower just by keeping it in its sight. (Not a recommended thing to do.) This is how we ended up across the street from what looked like the Bandai office building, where statues of Bandai characters lined the sidewalk—including Ultraman and Kamen Rider. P had a nerdgasm. We took an embarrassing amount of photos before going inside, where toys and more Bandai characters were in display on the ground floor.

 

Kamen Rider equals nerdgasm for P

Hello, Ultraman

My favorite sight inside the Bandai building--it's the sergeant!

Keroro toys, hmmm.

Of course we had to go inside. (Too bad you can't take pictures inside)

When we got out, it started raining. We were hungry and I was still craving for tapsilog (which is a Filipino breakfast consisting of tapa or cured salty beef, sinangag or fried rice and pritong itlog or sunny side-up egg) or any –silog for the matter. I didn’t want tea, miso soup, beef bowl, ramen or onigiri that morning. Without a Filipino restaurant in sight, we ended up in McDonald’s.

Then with our one-day Metro card (bundled with the limousine bus ticket we bought in Narita the day we arrived) and our JR Pass, we took the Ginza line from Asakusa to Ueno, then from Ueno we took the JR line to Harajuku. Yes, we were creatures of habit and Harajuku seemed to be a pretty straightforward and manageable area to explore for the day as Meiji-Jingu and Yoyogi Park were also just short walking distance from the station exit. (I just promised P we were not going to set foot in crowded Takeshita-dori again.)

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Kyoto, Day 6: “The Japan of your imagination” (plus, lots of tourists)

Kinkaku-ji

There it stood, stunning and gleaming on the edge of a serene mirror-like pond—an intricately-designed temple covered with gold-leaf. The Rukuon-ji Temple, or more popularly known as Kinkaku-ji or Golden Temple, was our first stop on our second day in Kyoto. A retirement villa built in the late 14th century, converted into a temple, and centuries later, reconstructed after it burned to the ground, it is one of the more famous cultural sites in a city dotted with 1,600 Buddhist temples and 400 Shintō shrines. So famous that guide books will tell you that the UNESCO World Heritage Site attracts hordes of tourists almost any day of the year. If you want some semblance of serenity while beholding the gilded Zen temple, be there early before the bus-loads of tour groups arrive, or before the temple closes. P and I, along with our two friends from Manila, were there a few minutes after it opened and, though we were amidst quite a number of fellow tourists, it thankfully hadn’t reached Tokyo-train-station-on-a-rush-hour proportions just yet.

One of the most ubiquitous contraptions in Japan

After viewing the temple, we followed the path leading through its vast gardens, climbed a few steps overlooking it, passed a traditional teahouse, and a small shrine called Fudo Hall. Nearby are a few shops selling souvenirs, sundaes, matcha tea, and Japanese snacks like dango balls. We didn’t stop to have any of those. We did stop by one of the many vending machines outside the temple for a drink. Keeping in stock every kind of drink—water, coffee, tea, cider, soda, beer (and sometimes even food)—vending machines are found in almost every street corner in Japan.

If you’re just going around Kyoto, take note that the city buses are green

From the northwestern part of Kyoto, where Kinkaku-ji is, we had to go east to Northern Higashiyama area where we planned to spend the rest of the day—walking the Philosopher’s Path from Ginkaku-ji to Nanzen-ji. We walked to the Kinkakuji-michi bus stop to catch either bus no. 102 or 204, which both stop at Ginkakuji-michi. The way the bus network of Kyoto is mapped out, it appears as efficient and intricate as the railway system of Tokyo, with most of the former imperial capital’s attractions easily accessed by taking a bus. While the city has a helpful railway system, which you can opt to take to avoid downtown traffic or cover longer distances, it is not as elaborate as Tokyo’s. Also, in some train stations you might have to walk quite a distance, take a bus or a taxi to get to where you want to go.

A bowl of ebi tempura for lunch

Once we reached Ginkakuji-michi, we stopped by a restaurant to refuel with tempura-soba and tempura-don. Outside, the cherry blossoms beckoned. Tetsugaku-no-michi or the Path of Philosophy is a wonderful vision in spring with the cherry trees in bloom lining the pedestrian path that follows a canal. It was supposedly where Japanese philosopher Nishida Kitaro practiced meditation while he walked from his daily commute to Kyoto University and it’s easy to see how it could be a perfect place for contemplation. But following his footsteps nowadays may not be that easy, especially in spring, when you have to stroll the path with many other cherry blossom-seeking tourists. Being part of that group, I didn’t really mind.

Setting of many a scenic stroll, especially during sakura season

When we came upon a fork in the road, we kept to the left before continuing our Path of Philosophy stroll. The road, crowded with more tourists and lined with souvenir stores and food stalls, leads up to Ginkaku-ji.

One of the many stalls on the way to Ginkaku-ji selling Japanese sweets like yatsuhashi

Known as the Silver Pavilion, the Zen temple is another popular sight in Kyoto. It was built as a retirement villa and was meant to be covered in silver, which was never completed. It isn’t exactly a bad thing as the two-storey temple of white and brown is a soothing sight, especially next to the beautifully raked white sand. The only thing to spoil the very Zen-like scenery were us tourists huddled together, taking snapshots and getting in each other’s shots. The Lonely Planet guidebook describes Kyoto as a place “where you will find the Japan of your imagination.” Just from seeing the two popular temples and the Gion area the night before, the description definitely rings true. Just be sure to include crowds of tourists in your imagined Japan.

Ginkaku-ji, another must-see World Heritage Site in Kyoto

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Tokyo, Day 2: Sushi, sakura and Shibuya

Sakura!

Waking up before 5 a.m. during one’s vacation is never an easy feat. Especially when you’ve spent the night before stuffing yourself until past midnight. But we had to if we wanted to see the action in Tsukiji Fish Market. Known as one of the world’s largest fish market, it handles over 2,000 metric tons of fresh seafood every day. It’s also become a tourist attraction—much to the supposed chagrin of the workers there—for the tuna auction held every 5:30 in the morning. But first we had to get there on our own.

It was a Friday and C had to go to work. My husband and I were not going to smoothly maneuver our way around Tokyo’s busy stations the way we did last night—with our very tall friend as our guide. He took our map of Tokyo Metro and told us where we should transfer and what train we should take. We had to take the Den-en-toshi line to Shibuya, from Shibuya take Hanzomon Line to Aoyama-itchōme, and from there take the Oedo line and go down Tsukijishijo. As much as I would end up loving the efficient train system of Japan, on that first morning, I suddenly missed the simple linear MRT and LRT lines of Manila. Being the designated navigator of the entire vacation, I was furiously taking notes. My husband kept asking, “Do you get it? Do you know it na?” I suddenly had a flurry of images of fighting couples in Amazing Race.

Once we got to Sangenjaya Station we headed to the ticket counters. There are maps on top of the vending machines dispensing the tickets in all the stations in Tokyo indicating the stops and the fare, but for a few seconds I could only stare at it blankly. Wondering what it all meant. When in doubt about the ticket fare, C advised us that we could just buy the lowest priced ticket and check the difference at the fare adjustment machine on our destination station. It also sounded complicated, but it was a problem we could figure out once there. After getting our tickets, we were faced with the dilemma of what platform to take. “Do you know where to go?” My husband asked. To the left or right? I approached the uniformed train station employee by the manned gate, showed him the map and asked, “Shibuya?” He pointed to the platform on the left and bowed.

“Domo arigato!” Two of the four Japanese words I knew. I would be uttering them every time whenever I’d show my map to a train station guard throughout the trip. It only didn’t serve us well once when I was faced with an intercom and the Japanese at the other end couldn’t point to where we were supposed to go.

Finding our way to the Tsukiji Market

When we finally got out of Tsukijishijo Station, it was the same problem. To the left or right? This time there was no uniformed train station employee to ask. I looked at my notes and 19-page itinerary, where I had included directions and a map. I also looked at the print-out I had of a DIY tour of Tsukiji Fish Market. The main entrance of which is supposedly in front of the Asahi Shinbun building. From where we stood, I couldn’t see the Asahi Shinbun building. Wasn’t Tsukiji Fish Market just above the Tsukijishijo Station? I was stumped. We paced up and down the block, not sure at what street we should turn to. Then my husband spotted a couple of Caucasians with cameras hanging down their necks heading down the street on our right, next to a gasoline station. “Let’s just follow them.” And so we did. The street was lined with a few carts and parked delivery trucks. Save for some Styrofoam boxes stacked in a pile, it was very clean like many of the streets of Japan.

In the Inner (Wholesale) Market

Then slowly the market revealed itself. Forklifts and motorized carts started rushing past us and it’s your duty to get out of their way. We entered a large warehouse, which turned out to be the market’s famed wholesale area, and there it was—stall after stall of every fresh seafood known to man. Those huge tuna being sliced with large band saws. Boxes of crabs, oysters, shrimp. In some stalls, prime tuna cuts were encased in a glass display like the precious commodity that they are. I felt like I was going around a museum. Each stall an installation art, with its prized seafood and workers performing their routine quietly, precisely. Fellow tourists taking pictures, observing, gawking, resisting the urge to touch the sea wonders.

We didn’t reach the famed tuna auction, but we decided to have some sushi for breakfast. As our friend reminded us before leaving his place, “Eat only in the restaurants with the long lines!” Judging by lines, Sushi Dai is probably the most popular sushi bar in the market. It always has a long line of people waiting to be served. And the wait can take an hour or two. But we here hungry and we had to meet some other friends to go to Ueno Park. So we simply parked ourselves in front of the counter of one of the eateries at the outer market. It served 11 types of sashimi, including maguro (tuna), ebi (prawn), ika (squid), fish eggs, sake (salmon) and uni (sea urchin) on top of a cold bowl of rice. Though bleary-eyed the entire morning and feeling a bit disoriented, the hot tea and the cold, raw seafood roused and reminded us of where we were: In Tsukiji, Tokyo, having sashimi. How could the day get any better?

Tsukiji breakfast: a bowl of rice topped with different kinds of sashimi

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